Cheryl Toussaint is a Pan American Games gold medalist and Olympic silver medalist in the 4×400 meter relay. She is the founder of Tousse Running Apparel and the Meet Director for the Colgate Women’s Games, America’s largest track and field series for women.
I had the chance to interview Cheryl about her career, how she overcame adversity, and advice for the next generation of athletes.
Her story is the embodiment of the underdog mentality, and I’m excited to share it with you.
In a recent interview, you said: “I wasn’t driven to run track, it was just sort of an accidental thing.” Can you describe your early life and how you got your start as an athlete?
I grew up in Brooklyn, NY with modest means. As a young girl, I used to race with friends in my neighborhood for fun but didn’t know that running could be a team sport or provide life-changing opportunities.
When I was 13, I heard that a youth summer program was holding a track meet and entered on the spot because I wanted to see what it would be like to compete against real runners. I was completely unprepared but ended up finishing in fourth place in the 100-meter race.
All three girls ahead of me belonged to the same running team. This is how I first learned about the Atoms Track Club and met my longtime coach, mentor, and founder of the Colgate Women’s Games, Fred Thompson.
How did your coach, Fred Thompson, impact your life?
Fred taught me to stand up for what I believe in, to be a positive role model, champion teamwork, and to prioritize education. He saw potential in me and helped me conquer barriers I faced due to race, gender, and economic circumstance.
Fred founded the Atoms’ Track Club and advocated for women’s track and field at a time when it wasn’t supported in many places.
Fred also taught me to lead with authority. To share just one life-changing anecdote of Fred: he impressed upon his athletes the importance of understanding current events and showed us the best way to fold The New York Times so we could read every section – he wanted us to be prepared for the world we faced!
He instilled the importance of education and implored us to always put education first, with a goal to “get that piece of paper,” meaning a college degree. He would ask young women who weren’t meeting his rigorous academic standards to skip practice until they got their grades up.
Fred’s legacy lives on through Colgate Women’s Games’ focus on athletic and academic excellence.
How can sports change the direction of a young person’s life? In your opinion, what makes sports so powerful?
There’s no question in my mind that I am the person I am today because of my experience in track and field and my life’s work with Colgate Women’s Games.
My participation in organized track and field helped me become more confident, goal-oriented, self-reliant, and disciplined. These qualities – along with hard work and perseverance – eventually led me to earn an academic scholarship and college degree from New York University, win a silver medal in the 1972 Olympics, found and direct my own sportswear company, and be a leader in building Colgate Women’s Games’ legacy.
Likewise, I aim to empower girls and young women to dream big so they, too, can realize their potential.
Thousands of young women have earned Colgate Women’s Games scholarships which helped them pay college expenses, earn degrees, and enjoy successful careers in education, law, business, medicine, sports, and more.
What’s really special about Colgate Women’s Games is it’s a community of girls and women who thrive on teamwork and strive for personal growth – and understand the value of mentorship from coaches and peers. Competitors learn from each other, encourage each other, and most importantly, everyone is building valuable life skills.
You won a silver medal at the 1972 Olympic Games while running most of the 400 meters with only one shoe. Can you share that story?
I was one of seven Atoms Track Club runners who qualified for the 1972 U.S. Olympic Trials and had a chance to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team to compete at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.
I couldn’t sleep the night before the Trials, but qualified and became the first member of the Atoms Track Club to make the Olympics. At the Olympic Games, I earned a silver medal in the 4×400 meter relay, even after an early mishap forced me to run the race with only one shoe – and Fred Thompson was there to support me.
After returning from the Olympics, the Atoms Track Club got a lot of recognition – both because of my accolades and because other runners from the team were earning scholarships to attend college. Fred’s plan for us came to fruition as we were driven to achieve on the track, in school, and in life.
It was very important how we carried ourselves as young women, particularly as young Black women, and as representatives of our families, our community, and our country.
Fred founded Colgate Women’s Games just a few years after my participation in the Olympics, and I’m proud that I was able to break barriers and pull my teammates and other young women along with me by showing what I achieved was possible for them too.
What is the most overlooked aspect of pursuing a sport at the Olympic level?
One personal challenge and triumph was learning how to balance being a mentor and positive role model for other athletes (particularly while I was still a maturing young athlete myself).
When you’re an Olympian, people look up to you; it comes with the territory. I took the responsibility of using my voice to inspire change very seriously. Winning the silver medal empowered me to use my position and public profile to create opportunities for future generations of athletes and leaders to rise to their full potential – a mission I’ve dedicated my life to as Colgate Women’s Games Meet Director.
What is your #1 piece of advice for aspiring college and pro athletes?
Sports have the power to bring people and communities together for good, and athletes are focal to this effort. Athletes develop mutual respect which builds trust.
I encourage aspiring athletes to recognize their power and responsibility to effectuate change that will make a difference in their life and in the lives of others. When I reflect on my running career, I think about all Fred Thompson and the sport of track and field taught me and how it transformed my life and has positively impacted the lives of countless girls at the Colgate Women’s Games.
If you could put one message on a big billboard for millions of people to see, what would that message say?
“Colgate Women’s Games transforms lives!”
While the Games are an incubator for developing athletic talent – with at least 29 girls who have become Olympians and hundreds who have become national champions – the greatest benefits of the Games are realized by the thousands of young women who do not necessarily make the sports headlines, but who have been inspired to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and leaders in their chosen profession.
I always say: “Track and field is the great equalizer since anyone with desire and a pair of sneakers can participate.”
The Colgate Women’s Games shows that regardless of their background, girls develop confidence, discipline, and learn valuable life lessons through this sport.
When mentors, leaders, and communities come together to dedicate more time and resources to reach underrepresented communities and children who need it the most, much like we do through Colgate Women’s Games, they bridge multiple divides and help future generations succeed.
What are the Colgate Women’s Games?
Colgate Women’s Games is the nation’s longest-running track series for girls and young women that develops leaders and athletes and empowers them to rise to their full potential through the power of athletics, mentorship, and education as a pathway to achievement.
The Games are an entry point for aspiring young athletes to learn how to compete and build confidence in a supportive environment that applauds effort and encourages perseverance.
Each year, the free, New York City-based series – open to girls from first grade and above to women in college and beyond – offers thousands of competitors across the East Coast the chance to win trophies and educational scholarships from our sponsor Colgate-Palmolive.
More than 5,000 Colgate Women’s Games scholarships have been awarded to date, enabling thousands of girls to pay for college expenses, earn degrees and go on to have successful careers.
Celebrating its 47th anniversary this spring, Colgate Women’s Games remains committed to providing opportunities for girls to achieve their personal best to realize a brighter, healthier future.
I’m honored to be part of Colgate Women’s Games’ legacy and leadership team since its inception and to serve as Meet Director since 2014. I’m humbled to see my life’s work make a positive difference in the lives of thousands of girls and women.
How can our readers support you and the CWG?
The 2022 Colgate Women’s Games just concluded this spring at New York City’s iconic Icahn Stadium and we’re already making plans for next season’s event.
We invite you to share our website link with girls and women who could benefit from our program, are interested in participating, or would like to receive information about upcoming events.
Events are free and very exciting. Come out to cheer on and be inspired by these courageous young athletes who are following their dreams.
Visit our website: ColgateWomensGames.com
Editor’s Note: Big thanks to Cheryl Toussaint for her time and insight!
For more inspiring sports stories, join our newsletter 👇